Tuesday, July 6, 2010

In the wake of PLOTUS-gate

A few poets respond to David Biespiel's essay "This Land is Our Land" in the pages of POETRY. Some excerpts:

Listing poets who do what he considers public work, Biespiel asks, "Why aren't there more?" How many does he want? Do Juan Felipe Herrera's decades of work in community-based theater count? What about teaching in prisons, as Herrera, Steve Healey, Gabriel Gudding, Mairéad Byrne, and dozens other poets have done? [...]

If such works are public involvement, then American poetry has plenty of public involvement, though there could always be more. And if they are not---if public involvement has to take place in a way wholly divorced from the writing of poems---then it is far from clear that poets, as poets, have any special powers to bring [...]

Stephen Burt
Belmont, Massachusetts

Read Burt's entire letter HERE.


I'm all for it, in theory, having all the romantic fantasies of a leftist born too late for the grand narrative. But that stuff's not available in conservative, corporate-run America, and you just can't get people excited about that sort of thing if you're all about change from the middle of the road.

Few of us are given the opportunity to refuse a National Medal of Arts like Adrienne Rich, or use a poet laureateship for political purposes. Fewer still are given the opportunity Dana Gioia had under the Bush Administration.

Daisy Fried
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Read Fried's entire letter HERE.


I'm absolutely interested in poets who are doing exactly what Biespel proposes. Elizabeth Alexander's role as inaugural poet was a terrific occasion to ask what a poet in that position should be/do. Shouldn't she have been considered in Biespiel's essay? Or Luis Rodriguez: Throughout his long career he's played key roles in community organizations and support groups for youths, gang members, poets, and many others. How is he not a model for the very poet Biespiel calls for?

If we are going to discuss democracy and poetry, let's really be democratic.

Terrance Hayes
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Read Hayes' entire letter HERE.


David Biespiel responds:

[...] And while I am glad to learn of other poets who act politically, I feel despair for those who believe that, since I didn't name every breathing example, my argument is moot.

Read Biespiel's entire response HERE.


HERE is the essay that prompted this discussion.

And here is what I wrote in response to "This Land is Our Land":

Dear Editor:
We’ve heard this before. Every now and then, someone (is it my imagination, or is it usually a white male?) remarks about how American poets are not held in the same regard (or as involved in their country's civic life) as they are in other countries: usually, writers from the former Soviet bloc are invoked, or from Latin America; in those places poets can often become principal players in their nation’s national discourse---sometimes suffering imprisonment as a result, or worse.
One of the beliefs I became more adamant about during my time in Spain the longer I lived there (ten years) is that it’s rarely helpful to generalize about a people. In a country as large and diverse and free as the United States an exercise of the sort Mr. Biespiel engages in is fairly innocuous.
But here is what I came away with after reading, and re-reading “This Land is Our Land.” On the one hand Mr. Biespiel complains about how American poetry has been balkanized, become insular and inward-looking. Yet one reads the names of the poets he suggests we might emulate, and one can’t help but note how homogenous a group it is. With the exception of two, the only people he deigns to mention are white. And one of those two he refers to as “hairbrained” in commenting on this poet’s “cockamamie nonsense.” Well, okay, something the poet said was “hairbrained.”

And why does he name Amiri Baraka as one of his role models? Because he “was serving in a public role as poet laureate.” That’s right: one of the ways American poets can aspire to make a difference in our nation’s public discourse and engagement with democracy is to be appointed a poet laureate. Thus, among his “nifty dozen:” Robert Pinsky and Charles Simic. And if you don’t have the good fortune to be a laureate, get yourself appointed the Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (Dana Gioia) or land the Presidency of the Guggenheim Foundation (Edward Hirsch), or get awarded (so you can decline it) the National Medal of Arts (Adrienne Rich). Get the picture?
Mr. Biespiel writes, early in his piece: “I would further make a distinction between activism (my emphasis) and volunteerism (my emphasis), which are not my subjects here, and civic discourse and democratic engagement, which are.” How convenient to exclude those pesky activists. One might ask: Which demographic (and its poets), typically, has engaged in, and continues to engage in (Arizona) activism? I think we know the answer to that question by noting which segments of America are absent in Mr. Biespiel’s lily lament.
Francisco Aragón
Arlington, Virginia

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